Of the dozens of Republican elected officials who have decided not to run for another term this fall, most are in agreement, tacit or otherwise, that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has been a disaster for the party of which he is ostensibly the leader. But not so the men and women actually running for office in 2018, especially in the post-industrial landscape of the so-called purple states, as Tuesday's primary election results made clear.
In Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia, this year's GOP primaries were not about who could cite the most American Enterprise Institute talking points or bludgeon voters into electoral submission with the sheer tedious force of their aww-shucks family values charm. They were Trump look- and sound-alike contests.
This goes a long way toward explaining why in such geographically disparate parts of the country things got deeply weird at about the same time. Mary Taylor, the lieutenant of the sitting Republican governor in Ohio, disavowed her own boss, John Kasich, an unabashed critic of the president. She criticized policies that she had helped to implement, such as Kasich's support for aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and even claimed that she hasn't spoken to him in more than a year. Her opponent in the governor's race, Mike DeWine, the state's attorney general and a former U.S. senator, abandoned his moderate establishment image and endorsed the construction of a border wall — presumably to keep dissolute Wolverines fans in Mexico where they belong — and the arming of teachers in the classroom with such lunatic zeal that voters were convinced he was the genuine article. (DeWine cruised to victory in the gubernatorial primary, and will now face Democrat Richard Cordray in the fall.)
In Indiana, state Rep. Mike Braun, a self-funding businessman and former Democrat, triumphed over two would-be anti-establishment Republican congressmen so generic that in one hilarious television ad he invited voters to decide whether a pair of cardboard cut-outs represented the same or different figures (reader: I could not tell myself) and pilloried them for their support of free trade.
In West Virginia, of course, "Cocaine Mitch" happened. Despite a late surge in polls and an enormous cash advantage, Republicans there ultimately rejected the unhinged coal tycoon Don Blankenship, perhaps the most Trumpian candidate in the country. He possessed all the glittering qualities except, alas, the crucial support of the president himself, who recommended a vote for either of his opponents. The eventual winner of the GOP Senate nomination, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, emphasized his record fighting drugs and his hardline views on immigration.
The tactics of the candidates in Tuesday's elections, winners and losers alike, should put to rest the notion that Trump has lost any of his popularity among the base of voters who elected him in 2016. It is clear that in these blue-leaning states, Republicans realize that their only chance is to ally themselves with the president hated by the leaders of their party in Washington and to emulate him both in style and — to the limited extent to which this is possible — substance. In these three states even Democrats understand that pitting themselves against Trump rather than in favor of their constituents' economic well-being and conservative social views is a losing game, which is why Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), for example, has taken the president's side in votes more than 60 percent of the time, including crucial Cabinet nominations. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) votes Trump's way nearly as often. Even Richard Cordray, the progressive who beat poor Dennis Kucinich to win his party's nomination for governor in Ohio following an endorsement by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), is a former clerk for Judge Robert Bork of Slouching Towards Gomorrah fame and one of the only members of his party with an A rating from the National Rifle Association.
But the broader lesson here is that, in the second year of his presidency and nearly three years after that extraordinary escalator press conference in the lobby of a building he named after himself, the author of The Art of the Deal dominates our politics like no figure in recent history. To find a sitting politician who so forcefully impressed himself upon the imaginations of Americans one would have to look back to Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats hate him; Republicans, at least the ones who are bothering to stay in politics through 2020, want to be as like him as possible; no one seems capable of or even interested in ignoring him.
Whatever Trump's opponents might tell themselves, this ultimately cannot be a good thing for them.